If you feel like a bespectacled, hijabi woman in your Zoom classes looks familiar to you, chances are that you have e-met me. My name is Dhania Putri Sarahtika, or Dhania for short, and I am part of quite a large bunch of Indonesians at the KDI School of Public Policy and Management.
Majoring in MPP, I started my studies at the KDI School of Public Policy and Management in the Fall semester of 2020. Like everybody else, I spent my first semester taking courses from my home country. Now, I have to say that I am glad that I have been spending my spring semester in Korea. Although the classes are still carried out online, I am at least close to the necessary resources, such as being able to access the library, socialize with my classmates from time to time, or enjoy a change of atmosphere occasionally.
As the situation was not perfect all over and particularly difficult in the education sector, to what extent was it difficult to take distance online classes?
To be frank, it was difficult, but I am glad to say that I survived.
As my country’s COVID-19 situation was terrible at the time, I remained at home unless there was an urgent matter that required me to go out. Looking back, I think I only went out around 10 times—or maybe even fewer—between March 2020 and January 2021, and it was mostly to take care of administrative matters for my Korean visa. Yes, I can be that fastidious.
However, being a person who constantly needs a change of atmosphere, I found myself easily demotivated at the time. Studying from the same place over and over again can be suffocating. Apart from that, there was loneliness. I could not socialize with fellow classmates without sacrificing my already poor eyesight to stare at the laptop screen or type my responses in messaging apps (and I am not a person who is fond of online messaging to begin with). When the hybrid classes started on campus, I, as a floating ghost head on the screen, could only smile as the chatter of my classmates filled the room.
On the other hand, I consider myself privileged because, back home, I had a fairly stable internet connection and electricity. Once, the former “rebelled” at a very unfortunate moment though. The memory of not being able to connect to Zoom when it was my turn for the Korean Language and Culture speaking test is still vivid in my mind. I still remember internally panicking while emailing the professor that for some reason, everything was working fine except Zoom. Luckily, I had a very kind, understanding, and responsive professor who promptly set up a video conference link on another platform.
That little mishap is nothing compared to other luxuries I had. Seoul and Bogor, my hometown, only have a two-hour time zone difference, so I did not have to take my classes at ungodly hours. However, I often noticed—and still do—that classmates from other parts of the world had to join the live classes at the early hours of dawn. I cannot imagine how hard it must have been for them.
Also, there was no one else besides me and my parents at home because I grew up as an only child. My home environment was pretty much conducive for studying, except for the occasional noises from my neighbors. This is another form of privilege I had because there are people who have to study while taking care of their kids or who have difficulty keeping noises out of their room.
What kept you focused or what motivated you to continue and work toward excellence?
As I said, it was hard to maintain my focus and motivation to study. I should mention that almost everything I have been studying so far at KDI School is new to me as the courses are starkly different from my academic and professional backgrounds. I have a bachelor’s degree in English studies; I work as an editor and translator; and, before that, I was a journalist covering arts and culture. Taking the huge leap to study Public Policy under a distance-learning model was, for lack of a better word, challenging in so many ways, yet, somehow, I came to love the challenges.
This may come as a surprise, and I am sure that not many will find my experience relatable, but starting my studies was somewhat a healing experience for me. Before the Fall semester commenced, when I was still working full-time from home, my mental health was spiraling downward. I felt very demotivated to do even the simplest tasks and often went into a slump. However, studying, even if I barely knew the subjects, gave me concrete goals and set my life on track again.
Another thing that kept me motivated was gratitude. Behind getting a scholarship to KDI School lie many failures. I was rejected by three different scholarships prior to KDI, so this was a hard-earned opportunity that I just could not waste. The people close to me know how ambitious I can be from the number and types of courses I have taken. It is because of my motto: as long as studying is free, then knock yourself out (as in “enjoy it and make use of the available resources as much as you like”, not “exert yourself to the point of exhaustion”).
Nevertheless, I still acknowledge that my privilege contributed to the positive things I just said. I sympathize with people whose concentration and motivation are reaching a breaking point because of online classes. Learning inequality as a result of pandemic-induced distance learning is sadly real. It was for this reason that I chose to do my thesis on the differences in learning outcomes between graduate students who took fully online classes and those who had the opportunity to attend on-campus classes. I am not against online classes, yet, hopefully, in the future, we can somehow make things a little better for those who are more disadvantaged than others.